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Dangerous animals shot after owner freed them and killed himself

ZANESVILLE, Ohio

The woman's voice on the other end of the 911 call was calm, if a little annoyed.

"There's a bear and a lion out," she said.

"There's a bear and a lion out?" the operator asked, just as calmly.

"Yeah," said the woman. "Right up behind us." The caller was asked to repeat that last part. "Yeah," she said. "They're chasing Terry's horses."

By late Wednesday, the authorities in Zanesville, in central Ohio, said they had killed or captured all but one of the 56 exotic animals that had escaped from an animal preserve in woods a few miles west of downtown after the owner, Terry Thompson, 62, cut open their cages and pens and then fatally shot himself Tuesday.

As homeowners nervously hid indoors, officers armed with high-powered rifles and shoot-to-kill orders fanned out through fields and woods to hunt down the animals that had been turned loose from the Muskingum County Animal Farm.

After an all-night hunt that extended into Wednesday afternoon, 49 animals were dead: 18 Bengal tigers, nine male lions, eight female lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two grizzly bears, one baboon and two wolves.

Six others — three leopards, a grizzly bear and two monkeys — were captured and taken to the Columbus Zoo. A single monkey was the only animal still on the loose.

"It's like Noah's ark wrecking right here in Zanesville, Ohio," lamented Jack Hanna, TV personality and former director of the Columbus Zoo.

Hanna defended the sheriff's decision to kill the animals, but he said the deaths of the Bengal tigers were especially tragic. There are only about 1,400 of the endangered cats left in the world, he said.

"When I heard 18 I was still in disbelief," he said. "The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is."

Officers were ordered to kill the animals instead of trying to bring them down with tranquilizers for fear that those hit with darts would escape in the darkness before they dropped and would later regain consciousness.

"These animals were on the move, they were showing aggressive behavior," Sheriff Matt Lutz said. "Once the nightfall hit, our biggest concern was having these animals roaming."

Sheriff's deputies, who had discovered Thompson's body in the driveway, were suddenly face to face with lions and grizzlies.

"I had deputies that had to shoot animals with their side arms," Lutz told reporters.

Overnight nearly 50 armed officers headed out, in a driving rain, searching the area around the farm. Some wore night goggles to spot animals that might be hiding behind trees. The Columbus Zoo sent veterinarians with tranquilizer guns.

In one harrowing incident, Lutz said, there wasn't time to wait for a tranquilizer to take effect:

"We just had a huge tiger, an adult tiger that must've weighed 300 pounds that was very aggressive. We got a tranquilizer in it, and this thing just went crazy."

It was shot.

As the hunt dragged on outside of Zanesville, population 25,000, schools closed in the mostly rural area of farms and widely spaced homes 55 miles east of Columbus. Parents were warned to keep children and pets indoors. And flashing signs along highways told motorists, "Caution exotic animals" and "Stay in vehicle."

The sheriff would not speculate why Thompson killed himself and why he left open the cages and fences at his 73-acre preserve, dooming the animals he seemed to love so much.

Thompson had repeated run-ins with the law and his neighbors. Lutz said that the Sheriff's Office had received numerous complaints since 2004 about animals escaping onto neighbors' property.

Thompson had gotten out of federal prison just last month after serving a year for possessing unregistered guns.

Information from the New York Times, McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Dangerous animals shot after owner freed them and killed himself 10/20/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 7:49am]

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